Membership in the Brethren Church: Something It Involves
A committee of the Southern California-Arizona District Conference has prepared and mailed a questionnaire to all Brethren ministers. Since it deals with matters equally important to laymen, the questions, eleven in number, are being reproduced here:
"1. Do you believe that a congregationally governed church has the right to determine its own bases of membership?
2. Has your church ever contemplated any change from the traditional method of membership in Brethren churches?
3. Have any members in your church ever raised a question about the commonly accepted Brethren membership policy?
4. Do you feel that a person baptized by any other method than trine immersion has thus obeyed God in the matter of baptism?
5. Do you feel that the Message of the Brethren Ministry places trine immersion as a prerequisite to church membership?
6. Do you feel that our conferences should refuse conference membership to churches which would admit members in their congregations not baptized by trine immersion?
7. Do you feel that our present church standard for voting membership should be raised to include requirements in addition to the present custom?
8. Do you feel that all believers otherwise acceptable should be refused membership until they are baptized by trine immersion?
9. Do you feel that the most usable evidences for trine immersion are Biblical or historical?
10. Is your mind committed without mental reservation that trine immersion is the only Biblical form of baptism?
11. In your opinion, what should constitute requirements for church membership?"
While several questions are a bit ambiguous (see 1, 7, and 9) the central issue is clear and might be summarized in a single question: Do we any longer believe in Trine Immersion as Biblically essential for membership in The Brethren Church? Two congregations in Southern California, by official action, have already answered No to this question. Thus the problem came before the district conference when these two congregations were about to present delegates. After some consultation, these congregations did not present delegates, and therefore no immediate decision by the conference was required. But out of this situation came the committee and the questionnaire.
Obviously, the problem is not one that can be restricted in its effects to the two congregations immediately involved, nor to the one district conference in which these two local churches are located. This problem will ultimately affect the entire denomination and every member in it. For this reason the questions in the above questionnaire are tremendously important. After analyzing the eleven questions, the writer feels that they gather about four main issues in the Biblical doctrine of the church. They are as follows:
(1) The government of the church;
(2) The membership of the church;
(3) The initiatory rite into the church; and
(4) The authorization for this rite of membership.
Actually the questionnaire is intended to get at number four.
THE GOVERNMENT OF THE CHURCH
Question number 1 explores the meaning of congregational church government. A congregation so governed means that the membership of such a local church governs itself, and that, without dependence upon any outside authority. But there is no congregation that is wholly self-governing. There are always some limitations upon this authority, if nothing other than the laws of the land in which the church is located. But when such a congregation is a member-church of a denomination, then there is further limitation. The rights of the congregation are limited by the general church doctrine which makes it a member of the denomination. This means that a local church, congregationally governed, cannot determine its own basis for membership where this involves the doctrine of the entire denomination. In matters incidental to the local church, it may determine the basis of membership, but it may go no further. This has been clearly defined in Brethren conferences, and it has been confirmed by the interpretation of courts in church litigation.
THE MEMBERSHIP OF THE CHURCH
Questions 2, 3, 7, and 11 are directly involved with this area of doctrine. Every constituted body of people usually declares its purposes at the very outset, and sets forth the requirements for membership. These requirements are not always written, but they are always understood, and whether written or unwritten they are established by practice. The Brethren denomination has established by uniform practice certain requirements for admitting people to the church, and these requirements are written. The only two congregations the writer has ever known to contemplate a change from the traditional methods are the two in Southern California. No member of any church where the writer has been a member has even so much as breathed a suggestion about change. But even if there were those who entertained thoughts of change, the thoughts were left unspoken, and I'm sure would never have been given serious consideration. Voting membership and church membership are the same thing. Only members have the right to vote, and membership is granted to those who fulfill the requirements for membership. If members are not living right, that should be handled by discipline, not by raising or adding to the requirements for membership.
THE INITIATORY RITE INTO THE CHURCH
Questions 4, 6, 8, and 10 discuss the rite of baptism as one of the requirements for entrance into the membership of the church. From 1708 to the present, The Brethren Church has insisted upon trine immersion as the only Biblical method of baptism for Christians to qualify for membership in the local church. Single immersion and sprinkling are modes of baptism followed by other denominations, and many have submitted to these modes because they knew no better. That they obeyed God as far as they knew establishes the purity of their motives. But ignorance still does not make such modes Biblical. Many whose motives were right, upon receiving more light, have obeyed the Lord in trine immersion. Since He Himself declares what is known, the Teacher and Lord declares the moral obligation for obedience to his teaching in John 13:13-14. A well-established moral and Biblical principle is that when one learns more, he is morally obligated to act on the new information. Churches should insist on this principle instead of dropping the standard.
But if churches within the Brethren fellowship are determined to admit members to their congregations by other than the denominational requirement of trine immersion, then Brethren conferences are not only justified, but are also morally obligated to exclude such churches from membership in conferences. Trine immersion is the first item in the list of doctrines set forth by The Brethren Church in its early conferences to characterize its faith. If a believer will not submit to the first requirement for membership, would this not raise a question on the other items the list? If a local church admits such people to their membership, thus failing to uphold the doctrine of the denomination, then it becomes the moral obligation of district or national conferences to deal with such a church, even if it requires exclusion from the conference.
THE AUTHORIZATION FOR THE RITE OF BAPTISM
Questions 5, 9 and 10 are concerned with this aspect of the problem, the most important of the entire questionnaire. About forty years ago, the Brethren ministers drafted what is known
"The Message of the Brethren Ministry." This statement of faith came into existence because the fundamentals of the faith were being attacked on the claim that there was personal freedom for interpreting the Bible. In it was included trine immersion as Biblically essential for membership in The Brethren Church, as declared by the writer of the statement. The reason those men placed this into that statement of faith was because the Biblical evidence is clear, and the historical evidence confirms it. Moreover, these two lines of evidence should never be separated. In fact, they cannot be separated. And because these two lines of evidence join hands to give us an intelligible Biblical record, and witness overwhelmingly to trine immersion, every Brethren member should be mentally convinced and morally determined to defend and propagate this truth.
The only Biblical method of baptism— trine immersion—was commanded by a sovereign. Christ as evidence of discipleship and as the rite of induction into the local church (Matt. 28:18-20). All authority is His as well as everything being placed into His hands (John 13:3). To reject the sovereign authority of Christ in instituting this ordinance strikes at the Head of the church. If Christ's Headship is rejected in favor of the will of the congregation, it is like saying that Christ is not the Lord of the church. It is a frontal attack upon His authority. And perhaps the reason His Lordship is rejected is because the full meaning of His person is not completely understood.
The issues involved in this questionnaire are far reaching. It could be hoped that they had never been written, yea, had not even been thought. But now that they are before the ministry, the entire membership of the church should also be informed, and should give serious thought to them. Fervent prayer and heart searching before God in this crisis should characterize the weeks ahead. All this should be with a view to become more firmly convinced and committed to the historical and Biblical doctrines of The Brethren Church.